Publisher: Devolver Digital
Absolver: 1. an elite, immortal warrior versed in esoteric martial arts 2. one who exonerates, pardons or clears another from sin or blame
There’s a pivotal scene in Spielberg’s Hook where Peter Pan (Robin Williams) draws a line in the sand as a way to establish his dominance over Lost Boys leader Rufio. Absolver is the type of fighting game that carefully treads that line, achieving an exquisite balance of solid, PvP duelling and zen meditation in a lush, semi-open world so beautifully displaced from reality. The fallen Adal Empire transforms into an infinite playground built upon a framework of exploration, acquisition of weapons, gear and armour, and an extremely unostentatious levelling system that feels utterly liberated from the standard RPG. And through its deathless, breatharian-inspired bushido lifestyle, that’s exactly what it’s promising—freedom.
Like the haunted mask in Goosebumps, a chosen warrior is bestowed with a special visor containing special properties; specifically, one that eliminates the need to eat, sleep or drink. After customising your look and selecting a combat style (Forsaken, Kahlt Method or Windfall), your mission is to roam between different regions, engaging in hand to hand combat with other ‘prospects’ (both AI and actual online players) and max out attributes like strength, endurance and dexterity to become impervious to attacks. Sloclap’s genius in finding a niche in the fighting genre is admirable; before Absolver, betraying the strict formula laid down by Street Fighter and Dead or Alive to make a new breed of brawler and maintaining the same level of adrenaline-pumping enjoyment was unheard of. But Absolver’s brave new direction pays off, hooking players with an intuitive learning curve and simplistic gameplay that’s all about the power of the fist.
Instead of glamorous, exotically named skins and mythical scythes surrounded by crackling electric auras, there are dull, makeshift swords, basic-looking wrist cuffs and faded boots. Much like the nondescript faces and personalities of other prospectors, all the equipment in Absolver looks rather rudimentary, even when it’s upgraded and boosts total damage or bolsters protection. However, where the artistic approach is plain and unassuming, the combat truly dazzles; you’d be surprised at how effective it is to implement a minimal repertoire of slightly modified kicks and punches and giving players the chance to harness their power without any tedious button sequences to memorise.
Duelling in Absolver is a combination of left and right clicks on the mouse, straightforward to learn, yet much more obscure to master; whether you fight AI or engage in PvP battles with online prospectors, spamming buttons in a tasteless grind just won’t do. To succeed, you’ll need to use cautious, premeditated attacks, parries and blocks, whip out special abilities forged by tension shards, and keep an eye on your stamina meter, which gets guzzled every time you chain too many attacks together. It’s thoroughly challenging in the best sense. With the mask, you’re technically immortal, but still die when your health bar is depleted. Fortunately, respawn times are extremely quick and if your opponent is gracious enough, they might revive you for another round of fun.
Absolver forces you to become familiar with its rules, but gives you ample room to do so in combat practice, and combat trials—essentially a three round of a PvP duel to the death. Unfortunately, the loading times for combat trials were outrageously long and I was disconnected before the match began. Aside from an isolated crash these were the only technical issues hampering Absolver’s performance, which in general was smooth and hassle free.
Everything about Absolver feels calm. Even amongst the constant flow of action in its en plein air dojo, there’s an air of tranquillity. Some of this can be ascribed to the altars, which function as both save points and a place of regeneration, also known as ‘meditation’ in game. But the majority comes from Absolver’s post-civilisation forest setting, distinct lack of signage or waypoints, and the lack of any other life forms save for fellow prospectors signed up for this solitary journey. Rarely will NPCs utter a single word unless you interact with them. Speech is reserved for key moments like narrative progression, and even then, it’s in a foreign tongue, sinking you deeper into the mystery of Absolver’s death-defying world.
The marriage of untamed exploration and fluid melee combat is a daring, ultimately triumphant move that cements Absolver in the fighting game hall of excellence. Its divergence from the mould and Dr.Strange-esque levels of mysticism might pique your curiosity, but the simple, addictive freeform duelling will keep you hooked. Sloclap has nailed diamond in the rough.
* * *
Full Disclosure: A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for purposes of this review.